Credit: Beijing Enlight
by Noel Oakshot Featured Film Spotlight

Under the Light — Zhang Yimou

November 17, 2023

A police investigation into the attempted murder of a fictional city’s vice mayor (Zhang Guoli), led by his percipient yet underachieving policeman son (Lei Jiayin), implicates the mayor’s business associate (Yu Hewei) in Zhang Yimou’s Under the Light, a knotted crime and corruption thriller that diverges from its initial trajectory with a series of disorienting perpendicular turns. It’s a major digression for Zhang’s filmography—his first feature since Keep Cool without a rural or period setting, and really his first film that deals with contemporary Chinese megacities in the country as we now know it. Receiving a relatively lowkey release after a disastrously conceived online advertising campaign which has since been scrubbed from Chinese social media, Under the Light is Zhang’s second high-grossing blockbuster of 2023. But despite the aesthetic digression, the screenplay replicates the structure and narrative schema of his other 2023 feature, Full River Red — or rather, FRR replicates that of Under the Light, since the latter was filmed in 2019 but held back due to the mundane ritual of its slow digestion and eventual regurgitation by the opaque Chinese film bureaucracy. Where Full River Red begins as a near farcical comedic mystery, and then progressively darkens and eventually mutates through tragedy into nationalist triumphalism, Under the Light begins as a thriller with subtly comedic undertones and then mutates into an equally melodramatic personal triumphalism of duty that wells up from national sentiment and community. The progression of events has a chess-like quality, which is the metaphor self-consciously deployed in the film, though as many Chinese viewers have argued, it’s not as airtight as that would imply. The film works within the moment like experiential logic, like a flowchart of circuitry states rather than a preservation of temporal logical consistency between all states, trading a sense of literary unity for present-tense impact. And it can feel a little heavy-handed at times, with overwrought emotional moments that become draining as the film stays the course. One in particular, involving a disabled child, almost induces whiplash in the viewer. Between the relentless moments, the film is buoyed by an immensely endearing Zhou Dongyu performance, who despite being given the worst dialogue out of anyone here, does the most with it. Joan Chen—whose film roles are increasingly rare these days—is less likable, tremendously mannered, and a little awkward to endure.

Where Under The Light really shines is in its native digital cinematographic paradigm: it was shot in Chongqing, in vibrant, kaleidoscopic, aggressively saturated color dominated by the burning bright lights that mark China’s major cities. Thanks to the way the digital lights fade and bleed into each other, the cutting sharpness of high-resolution reflections in glass panes, and myriad optical experiments, the film is constantly throwing visual fireworks at its audience, and the results are spectacular. This too is a bit of a modern-era switch-up, and perhaps has less to do with the conceptual and aesthetic throughlines of Zhang’s career and more to do with the trajectories of DP Luo Pan—who, at the time of shooting, was on the path to be one of China’s most exciting cinematographers after brilliant composition work in back-to-back Feng Xiaogang films—and that of screenwriter Yu Chen, who authored the last three Zhang Yimou screenplays, and whose directorial short films have a photographically overdetermined quality, suggesting that the broad-strokes aesthetic concept originated in the screenplay. The symmetry of the visual with the thematic, and its organic  language of post-digital commercial filmmaking, amounts to an edifying sense of holistic filmic unity. Rather than a story arbitrarily transposed to the screen, Under the Light was clearly conceived and executed as a work of visual art.

Since his return to China, following the debacle that was The Great Wall, Zhang has made six features, and time enough has passed to say that the comeback is real. After a decade of audiences pleading for a return to form, it finally came at the exact moment international audiences threw in the towel and stopped paying attention to Zhang, and largely Chinese film in general. The disinterest from non-Chinese audiences has been deafening—this $160 million-grossing crime thriller blockbuster from the most famous Chinese film director ever has received distinctly less attention in Western film culture than Wang Bing’s latest four-hour direct cinema documentary about sweatshop workers. While economic decoupling between China and the West is still in progress, it seems cultural decoupling has been achieved. Parallel to this, the corruption narrative arrives at a time where skepticism in China about the society and its governmental institutions is mounting after the Evergrande fiasco. Local government plutocrats and sleazy corporate hucksters are as reviled as they ever have been (or at least since the Cultural Revolution). It can seem like every Chinese film is scrutinized for some core pro- or anti-China sentiment, as if that is the fundamental axis on which every work emanating from a country of 1.4 billion people exists on. But Under the Light actively invites these comparisons, framing itself in terms of the Chinese society and the obligation of power to its constituents. Lei Jiayin’s despondent protagonist is no doubt conceived with a mind toward the despondent youth of China shrinking from social obligation and engagement. These themes are ultimately somewhat diversionary and rife with internal contradiction. Under the Light will stand in the long tradition of apolitical thrillers about political corruption.

When Zhang was at the peak of his fame in the 2000s there really were no other filmmakers in China making the big-budget fantasy epics he was, and as bloated as some of those films were, there was always a core kernel harkening back to his original aesthetic project as a cinematographer and director in the ’80s and ’90s. Since then, we’ve seen that particular fantasy genre expand, conquer, and then ultimately recede from cultural dominance. The folk cinema tradition Zhang made his name on has been buried in the latest cultural upheaval, and Zhang himself seems to be finally moving on. In spite of the sentimental regard it was afforded by Chinese audiences and international critics alike, One Second was by far the least successful of his last six films. And with the herd of original Fifth Generation figures persisting into the current decade thinning—and leading lights like Zhang Junzhao, He Qun, and Peng Xiaolian dying and remaining largely unheralded—China’s most significant film movement of the last half-century really is dying, both figuratively and literally.

DIRECTOR: Zhang Yimou;  CAST: Lei Jiayin, Yu Hewei, Zhang Guoli, Zhou Dongyu;  DISTRIBUTOR: CMC Pictures;  IN THEATERS: October 19;  RUNTIME: 2 hr. 7 min.